An Airbus Zephyr S solar-powered plane took off from Arizona on July 11 and stayed aloft for 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes — just 3 minutes shy of a full 26 days in the air. The plane has a wingspan of 82 feet and weighs a featherlight 165 pounds. It has two propellers powered by electric motors and solar panels on its gossamer wings. Batteries keep the propellers turning when the plane is flying in darkness.
The Zephyr S flies far above weather systems and commercial aircraft at 70,000 feet. “The only civil aircraft that used to fly at this altitude was Concorde, and only the famous military U2 and SR-71 Blackbird could operate at similar levels,” Airbus says in a press release.
“This very successful maiden flight represents a new significant milestone in the Zephyr program,” Jana Rosenmann, head of unmanned aerial systems at Airbus, tells Digital Trends. The previous record for sustained flight was 11 days, set by a Zephyr prototype. The new flight has not yet been certified as the longest ever. “We will in the coming days check all engineering data and outputs,” Rosenmann tells CNBC.
The company is planning to introduce an ungraded version of the aircraft called the Zephyr T with more powerful motors later this year. Airbus is readying a new home base for future Zephyr operations at Wyndham airfield in Western Australia.
Airbus refers to the Zephyr S as a “pseudo-satellite” — a platform that is not quite an airplane and not quite a satellite. The business model for the Zephyr calls for offering a range of services from reconnaissance missions to maritime surveillance, border patrol activities, and communication services to companies at far lower cost than conventional satellites can offer. Once fully developed, the Zephyr is expected to remain aloft for months at a time.
The plane can also offers rapid response time to track the spread of wildfires, oil spills, or other natural disasters. Of course, such a platform could have more sinister uses as well. The first paying customer will be the UK’s Ministry of Defense.
Such a long-duration aerial platform could also be used to provide internet connectivity to areas of the world where digital communications are limited or unavailable today. Several companies, including SpaceX and Facebook, have plans to offer such services in the future. SpaceX plans to use a network consisting of hundreds of low altitude satellites. It thinks it can save money getting them into orbit by piggybacking them aboard regular SpaceX launches.
Facebook intended to use long-duration high-altitude aircraft similar to the Airbus Zephyr for its internet program but recently shut down the project because it failed to function as planned after four years of trying. It is seeking new partners to move that project forward. Perhaps it should place a call to the folks at Airbus?